Leavin’ McMurtry

The author of The Last Picture Show wrote another book full of ribald, authentic Texas. A New York film crew has made Leaving Cheyenne into a movie full of, well, you’ll see.

A little over a year ago the movie folk came to Texas—to Bastrop—to film Larry McMurtry’s Leaving Cheyenne, which remains my favorite among that good writing man’s novels of the old home state. Life magazine offered me money to write what I saw of Tinseltown’s efforts to capture McMurtry’s Texas on film. Perhaps foolishly, I took it.

About a month later, while I was accomplishing some real serious mid-afternoon research over a beer at Scholz’s in Austin, a New York lawyer tracked me down to report a death in the family: Life, as of two hours earlier, had expired. But to assuage my grief, I could keep the money.

I also kept my notes and memories against the day with Molly, Gid and Johnny—the shooting title—might be loosed upon an unsuspecting world. Well, neighbors, it soon will be, under the title Lovin’ Molly (which won out, at the final gun, over The Wild and the Sweet) and unless you are careful you soon may find yourself trapped with it in some Texas theater. Should you find more than a modicum of true Texas in the film, excluding John Henry Faulk’s bit role—why, then, I’ll buy you a two-dollar play purty. Lovin’ Molly has no sense of Time or Place; a curious development, indeed, when you consider that Larry McMurtry’s writing strength derives from evoking Time-and-Place about as well as you will find it done this side of Faulkner.

McMurtry writes of a real and human Texas. It is that part I know best—“my blood’s country and my heart’s pastureland,” he puts it—where the land is flat, the people narrow, and their small, pinched lives beyond even Hollywood redemptions. Tales of “legendary” Texas, blessedly, are not McMurtry’s cup of Pearl: not for him blazing six-guns, noble Pioneers taming the land by killing Indians, granite-jawed sons of the Alamo, the excesses of the Big Oil New Rich—all those characters and situations which long ago passed across the great divide of willing suspension of disbelief to take firm root in Cliché Land.

What I like about McMurtry is that he sees those hypocrises, attritions, perversions, and absurdities common to the universal human condition and then isn’t afraid to admit, in print, that they exist even in Texas Our Texas. Not all “Texas writers” are entirely bold in telling truths on the home-folks, a condition reflecting our Boosterism Heritage, traditional Yahoo-ism, and dogged, unnatural institutional and family pressures to conform: to put a good face on all things Texas and Texan and to unite against critics from within or without. Introspection has never been highly prized in the land of my birth, or hard looks at why we operate as we do or feel as we feel. For too many years writing was considered “woman’s work” by most Texans and still is by some.

Our writing antecedents, including the revered J. Frank Dobie, too often hurrahed or gung-hoed and looked away from painful truths. Younger “Texas writers” are more honest than their elders. McMurtry, now a doddering 38, got in the truth-telling business early: Leaving Cheyenne was written at a precocious 23. He knows more truths now than he knew then, and has recently said of the book that it often seems to him the gropings of a somewhat dreamy very young man. Still: it’s a fine job; it rings true in the basics.

Not that I never quarrel with McMurtry. He sometimes harbors a touch too much romanticism, especially in his early work. His women strike me as a bit much, too heroic and long-suffering and strong. Too good. He sees ’em tough, but seldom does he see ’em mean. And Texas probably has as many mean, bitchy, neurotic women as any place on earth, with the possible exception of Manhattan; there, of course, they’ve gathered from all points of the compass, while our own crop is largely homegrown. McMurtry recognizes their ability to fight back, to survive in tough country, and knows that Texas women may often be stronger than their men. But I think he misses the extent to which large numbers purely enjoy wrecking and plundering and flashing their stingers.

And in The Last Picture Show, it’s my feeling that McMurtry too gently judges what a small town would tolerate should word get around that a high school kid was regularly diddling the coach’s wife—especially in the 1950s. There are just too many busy bodies and bored avengers to permit anything short of catastrophe in retribution. I believe one—or several—bad things would have happened: the coach would have been fired, his wife would have been chased out of town, and the cuckolded would have killed (1) the student and/or (2) the wife.

But no matter. McMurtry writes of Texas and Texans as well, or better, than anyone and with a rare honest bite. If I green with envy at the thought of a fellow-author’s Texas book, it’s McMurtry’s In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas. That high standard will last awhile. So he is a favorite with me, and I am saddened and angry when—as in Lovin’ Molly—I find him foully used. Let us fade, now, into the recent past—back to Austin and Bastrop, in November and December, 1972—to discover how professional film folks could have so botched and perverted McMurtry’s Texas.

Arriving at Austin’s Chariot Inn, I found the film company from technicians to Biggies—Director Sid Lumet, “Stars” Tony Perkins, Beau Bridges, Blythe Danner, Edward Binnes—understandably torpid in their enthusiasms toward the local culinary arts. Like starving Prisoners of War, they sat over their burned steaks or soggy tacos dreaming of the ideal: bagels and lox, frog’s legs provençale paysanne, duckling a l’orange with wild rice, vichyssoise. When one of their number, fresh off the airplane from New York, recounted his recent dinner—artichoke Juan-les-Pins, soup aux Choux paysanne, caviar and cucumber aspic and, maybe, candied Yak’s rump or salt-pickled hummingbird tongue—much of his audience cheered; others wept into their neglected barbeque.

The scene offered my first clue to the immediate future.

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